By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
Originally printed in The Catholic Worker, December 2020.
When I was a kid, we spent Monday evenings at Williams International, a cruise missile factory in Walled Lake, Michigan. My parents would pick us up from school and we would make the long drive while we pulled on snow pants and mittens. My parents would stand by the road with a single purple candle as employees drove home in the dark while my sister and I would play beside a stream scattering cattail seeds in the wind. After an hour or so, my dad would whistle and we would run to them and sing together “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Then we would load back into the car until we would return next week with two flames.
It was a seasonal commitment I learned in my body. Week after week, year after year my body returned to that strip of road that smelled of pine trees and the war machine. Through candles, singing, and darkness, I learned that our prayers, our faith, our liturgical year is about summoning justice amidst the powers of empire.
It’s been years since we vigiled at Williams International, but every year as the days grow shorter and I begin to collect pine to wind a wreath for our dining room table, I feel the pull within me ask, “Where do I put my body this Advent?”
And good God, after the year we have had, there are so many places we could and can and should be bringing our bodies.
But in these days as the lingering smoke still settles in the West and the water’s imprint remains on the homes along the Gulf coast, as I breathe the air in southwest Detroit poisoned by the Marathon oil refinery, as I stand on the shortened shores of the Great Lakes where water levels continue to rise while the water taps run dry- my body calls to me from deep within my innards that were once mud. They insist that I take my body and a single purple candle into the woods.
I need to stand beside life and beauty, touch her bark, delight in the snow, say hello to the animals who have left tracks behind as conversation invitations.
These are the places my body longs to be with my own kids. I want to sweep them up from their “virtual school,” force them into boots and gloves, and drive them deep into the woods. To the places that are that are under attack. The places where darkness can linger and hold us tight. The places where spirit still dwells in the smell of decay and in the silent stillness of a whole eco-system alive in the rhythm of creation. This is where my body needs to light the candles and sing for Emmanuel.
I am scared. I am scared for my children who are four and seven. I look out toward their futures and it all feels so uncertain. The climate is changing so rapidly. Species are disappearing. Humans are fleeing uninhabitable lands, dropping bombs over control of resources, and building walls around water access. Worst case scenario, my kids will be walking into the time of human extinction. Even if those scientific predictions and my worst fears do not come to pass, it seems certain that they will be witnessing so much change, pain, and death.
How on earth do we parent in this moment? What do we teach our children? How do we entrust them to a school system designed to prepare them for a world that will not exist when they graduate? How do we love them in a way that keeps them steady on this earth? How do we teach them to share generously in times of abundance and scarcity rather than to hoard, steal, and kill out of fear that there might not be enough? How do we give them freedom to tend to their hearts and those around them? How do we teach them necessary skills and trades with their hands and bodies? How do we help them sit with death? How do we raise them to re-find those ancient knowings that their body belongs on this earth and to find their marvelously small place in the grand diversity of life? Is it still yet possible that these children could usher us out of the death dealing systems of power and transform them instead into a way of life that fosters life, community, reciprocity, and beauty?
I’ve heard Ched Myers paraphrase Baba Dioum, a Senegalese environmentalist, over and over that “You can’t save a place you don’t love. You can’t love a place you don’t know. And you can’t know a place you haven’t learned.”
I think there is something in here about what our work is as parents (or any of us whose lives are intertwined with children in one way or another). Some of the most radical work we can do in this moment is help our children learn the land on which they stand. By doing so we are nurturing them to fall in love with this place — and ultimately that love may lead to risk for justice on this planet.
Sometimes in my family, this work looks like me lying with my belly on the sidewalk as we marvel at the legs on an earwig. Or snacking along our walks in the neighborhood on wild grape vines, tiger lilies, and the roots of Queen Ann’s lace. Other times it looks like holding lavish backyard funerals with neighbors and songs and wild flowers for the baby robin or stray cat. Cleaning the “clutter” in my house often means deciding which bones and stones and feathers and bug carcasses to keep and which to compost.
Chickadee, buckeye, chicory, and cabbage moth were among our kids earliest vocabulary. They would stumble upon a creature or treasure along the sidewalk and in sheer delight call out their name in all it’s syllable glory.
Three billion birds have gone missing in the US and Canada since 1970. Ninety percent of those are species we see on a daily basis- sparrows, black birds, warblers, finches. Ninety-two million Red Winged Black Birds alone have disappeared.
And it’s not only creatures, birds, and trees being wiped out, but our language for them. Webster Junior Dictionary regularly reevaluates the words in its dictionary making sure they have the most important words for kids to know.
In 2007, they had to make space for words like email, blog, cut-and-paste, attachment, broadband, and voicemail. These tech words went in and forty of the words that were removed were all about nature- acorn, bluebell, dandelion, fern, kingfisher, newt, otter, and willow. These words are not “necessary” or commonplace for children anymore. They are not being taught. And what is the cost?
How can our children notice the blue herons disappearing if they don’t even know what they are called?
I am haunted by the children’s book The Lost Words written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris. The beautiful book of creature illustrations and poetry was a response to the grief at how children’s language is changing.
Naming becomes a way of remembering, of paying attention, of determining what has value in our lives. So, we learn their names. We look. We listen. We sit still. We call them by name. Tufted titmouse. White throated sparrow. Northern Cardinal. Nuthatch. Mourning Dove. So that if they start to go silent, we will notice.
When I begin scrolling doomsday headlines, it is my kids who pull me back. I watch them engaging in the real world of climate justice as they wade into muddy water to catch a bull frog or marvel at the jawbone of an opossum. They are doing the real work. Their bodies are grounded to the earth. There is joy. There is love. And I believe they will fight like hell for each and every beloved dragonfly and stray cat fed at our back door.
Perhaps for now, the tides have turned. It is my kids’ whistling that calls me off the street corner to come and play a while on the fragile ice beside seeding cattails.
It is not everything. There are still streets to fill, calls to make, organizing to be done, jails to sing in. But in these short days and long nights, I need to venture out to the places that still know what Advent means. The wild earthly places that know how to be still and quiet. The shadowed corners that remind me how to trust the dark and know that light will return. The fungus growing along the rotting tree that teaches me about Kairos- that time is long and slow. The forests that honors that undistinguishable holy space between where death ends and life begins. The soil that can tend quietly to a small seed for many long, cold nights. The land that reminds us to rest and remember our place in the middle of things.
It is in those mysterious, earthly places that we will light the candles and join with ancestors in hope and longing, singing that “Rejoice! Rejoice, Emmanuel.”
So as we walk this Advent, we will keep our eye out again for pine cones to fill our pockets. We come home and let our fingers get sticky as we roll them in peanut butter and birdseed. It is a time of preparation. Then Christmas afternoon, when our bellies are full and our spirits strengthened, we will return back to the woods and head down well-worn paths, leaving presents for the birds and squirrels. We will rejoice in the cedar limbs, the buried apples, and the cardinal that lingers in the snow.
Lydia Wylie-Kellermann is the editor of Geez magazine, a quarterly, ad-free, print magazine at the intersection of art, activism, and faith. She is also the editor of the forthcoming book The Sandbox Revolution: Raising Kids for a Just World (Broadleaf, 2021). She lives in Detroit, MI.